Pure Heart Makes a Pure Body

Dear Reader, 

That’s something I firmly believe but it is also a bit of wishful thinking, as the search for а pure heart is a Sisyphean task enough to fill up a lifetime. Yet, a heart aware of the virtues of temperance and modesty is indispensable for making choices that might potentially lead to a pure, meaning healthy, body. Thus, I have to politely disagree with the ancient Romans and their view that the mens sana dwells in a corpore sano. I say, it is rather the other way round. 

A mid-20th century Diogenes. Do look at the faces of the others though, and how much malice, cunning, scheming, and ridicule they contain. Painting is called Searching, by Lim Yew Kuan, 1951, oil on canvas. Source: National Gallery Singapore.

For the residence of Bulgaria’s capital Sofia, not randomly called the City of Wisdom and the City of Spirit, the quest for a pure heart is greatly aided by Sofia’s numerous churches and monasteries, liberally scattered both within the city, and in its surrounding areas. The latter 21 monasteries, built from the 12th century onwards, are known by the collective name of Sofia’s Athos, and are convenient places to visit in a spare weekend morning or afternoon. 

See No Evil, Hear No Evil, Speak No Evil – three prerequisites to understanding what matters. Lim Yew Kuan, 1955, of the National Gallery Singapore.

Within Sofia, a great reminder of how faith and goodness carry on, withstanding the vicissitudes of time in small and mysterious ways, is the tiny, ancient and still operational St. Petka of the Saddlers’ Church, located at the heart of Sofia’s downtown, next to a large department store, the most important government buildings, a Catholic temple, a mosque, and a huge bank erected on the remains of a church, demolished during the WWII bombings. A sort of a Harmony Street-location, if I have to use a term I learned during my recent trip to Singapore and Malaysia. 

Cannot Grow Vegetables Anymore, or how how concrete ate the lettuce. Koeh Sia Yong, 1968, National Gallery Singapore.

The quest for a pure heart is linked to processes of selection and rejection of thoughts and ideas, until, hopefully, one puts their finger on the things that are really important. According to the Orthodox tradition, asceticism in food, and prayer, is the only way to quiet the body, and make more receptive the mind.

Different Thoughts, Lai Foong Moi, the 1960s, National Gallery Singapore

According to the Holy Fathers – the most loving and perspicacious counselors that ever existed – passions that lead men astray have their origin either in pride, and come from the devil, or in gluttony, and come from the calls of our own flesh. 

Naivety, Tran Trung Tin, 1973, National Gallery Singapore

According to a Holy Father whose name I can’t quite recall now, cupidity (=pride) is the most powerful passion of men in the world, while gluttony (incl. lust) is what most troubles monks. From a different perspective, the rule of cupidity in the world could also be called civilisational progress marking the shift in meaning of consumption from exhaustion to accumulation shifting from elite to masses since the onset of modernity in 16th-century Italy.

Questions Amidst Life, Tran Trung Tin, 1973, National Gallery Singapore

Along the lines of naivety, questions, civilisational progress, and (mass) consumption, I now leave it to you to ponder whether the below photographs represent art, arrogance, or just plain missing the point. 

Artist is Thai Kamin Lertchaiprasert, born in 1964. Artwork is of the 2000s. Source: National Gallery Singapore.
Kamin Lertchaiprasert; Source: National Gallery Singapore.

I think it was St. Serafim Sarovski (1754-1833), only recently canonised by the Bulgarian Church, who has said that one’s efforts at salvation light the way for tens of others on their own path to spiritual purity. Just think of Jesus Christ’s first disciple, St. Andrew, who has won over his brother Peter before going out to spread the Word of God in the lands of today’s Bulgaria. This idea of responsibility – meaning the ability and need to respond – makes one see the far-reaching implications of the way one speaks or acts. Also, it makes one humble, as they might receive hope and inspiration, or temptation, from unexpected sources. This calls on one to be vigilant, and being vigilant, so not coincidentally, is the meaning of the Church Bulgarian word for fasting, or Lent. No proper English translation for that one, as the modern English language, reflecting England’s giving up fasting early in the 1st millennium, does not have a conceptual notion of this.   

Having a pure heart will hopefully make one live a healthy and meaningful life, and die a dignified and meaningful death, which as we know, is but a passage to the other side

Age of Full Bloom, 1979, San Minn, National Gallery Singapore.

So, whatever happens, let’s keep calm as living is art in progress. I had to travel half the world to see that. 


PS. Funnily, I illustrated a post that had nothing to do with Singapore or its exquisite National Gallery, with works by Asian artists that I have seen there. Rather than reflecting these Asian artists’ likely Western schooling – oil painting, perspective, and chiaroscuro are Western techniques after all – I think this is rather due to human stories being a finite number, a fact determined by the universal limitations of human nature itself.

Even more funnily, the dating of the artwork depicted reflects an idea of Spanish philosopher Jose Ortega y Gasset (1883-1955), namely that the historic evolution of painting goes from depicting stuff, on to depicting feelings, and on to depicting ideas.